Frederick Sanger was an English biochemist and molecular biologist who twice received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry; in 1958 for his discovery of the structure of the insulin molecule, and in 1980 for his collaborative work on base sequences in nucleic acids with Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert.
He was widely considered to be one of the greatest and most influential biochemists in history.
Early Life and Education:
Frederick Sanger was born on 13th August in 1918 in Rendcombe, Gloucestershire, England. His father, also called Frederick, was a medical practitioner. He was a religious man, a Quaker, and had travelled to China as a medical missionary. His mother was Cicely neé Crewdson, the daughter of a wealthy cotton manufacturer. Frederick Jr. was the middle child of three children having an elder brother and a younger sister.
The three children were raised with Quaker principles and the family moved to Tanworth-in-Arden, near Birmingham when Frederick was five years old. He was initially taught by a governess and went to boarding school in 1927. From a young age Frederick enjoyed working with his hands and loved painting and carpentry.
Frederick attended Bryanston School for four years, from 1932 to 1936, and he particular enjoyed the biology and chemistry practicals. He passed his school certificate examination with an impressive seven credits and was accepted to St John’s College, Cambridge.
Sanger found his first year at University difficult, but persevered; he also had the misfortune to lose both his parents while he was an undergraduate. Sanger graduated with a BA in 1939 and stayed on to complete a biochemistry course which he self-funded from his inheritance.
Sanger married Joan Howe on December 28th 1940 and they had three children, two sons and a daughter.
Receiving a first class award for the biochemistry course, Sanger enrolled for a doctorate course which he also self-funded. He was awarded his doctorate in 1943 with his thesis “The metabolism of the amino acid lysine in the animal body”.
After graduation, Frederick Sanger held a prestigious Beit Memorial Fellowship for Medical research and from 1951 until his retirement in 1983 he was a researcher for the Medical Research Council.
Contributions and Achievements:
Sanger joined biochemist Albert Chibnall’s team of scientists who were studying the amino groups of insulin. This protein hormone is secreted by the pancreas and was of great scientific interest as it had been discovered in the early 1920’s that it could be used to treat diabetes.
Sanger identified that insulin was composes of two types of chains, a phenylalanine chain and a glycine chain. Using partition chromatography and the new technique of paper chromatography, Sanger was able to sequence the amino acids of each chain. Finally he deduced how the two chains were linked together, deducing that the complete structure was two chains—one of twenty-one amino acids, the other of thirty amino acids—were held together by two sulphur atoms, as S-S covalent bonds.
By 1954 Sanger had derived the complete structure of bovine insulin. He received the 1958 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his groundbreaking research on protein structure, determining the structure of the insulin molecule.
Sanger continued to study insulin, and sequenced insulin of different mammals and compared the results.
Between 1956 and 1962, Sanger pioneered procedures for sequencing radioactively labelled proteins.
In 1958 Sanger moved to new research buildings on the outskirts of Cambridge, The Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
Sanger’s interest switched to nucleic acids and he began RNA sequencing. Sanger used radioactive methods for sequencing RNA and in 1967 the first RNA was fully sequenced, with tRNA being successfully sequenced in 1969.
By 1970 Sanger was ready to tackle DNA sequencing. He devised a new DNA sequencing methodology, using acrylamide-gel based “read off” methods for sequencing. Sanger chose to sequence the single stranded DNA of a bacterial virus.
In 1977 Sanger’s group had derived most of the DNA sequence of bacteriophage ɸX174, the first complete genome to be sequenced, consisting of approximately 5375 nucleotides.
Sanger was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry once again in 1980, this time sharing it with Paul Berg and Walter Gilbert for determining the amino acid sequences of DNA information.
Before his retirement in 1983, Sanger also sequenced human and bovine mitochondrial DNA.
His later contributions established the basic genetic principles utilized by almost every biotechnology application.
Sanger is only the fourth person in history to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes.
He has received many other honors for his extraordinary work on genetics and biotechnology.
- Fellow of the Royal Society in 1954
- Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1963
- Royal Society’s Royal Medal in 1969
- Copley Medal in 1977
- Order of Merit in 1986
Sanger retired in 1983 to his house in Swaffham, Bulbeck near Cambridge. He rejected a knighthood as he did not want to be addressed as “Sir”.
He died on 19th November 2013 aged 95 of aspiration pneumonia at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge.